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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

The other day, I learned that a gent by the name of Levi Asher, writing in Brooklyn, gives the New York Times Book Review a weekly once-over. Having just discovered me, he writes in his current entry that the Daily Blague is "the latest member of the hit squad." I can't wait to learn more!


The ratio of fiction to nonfiction is closer to balance than I can recall its having been, at least in a normal, non-themed issue. Even more interesting is the fact that Liesl Schillinger reviews two novels by the same writer, Will Clarke. I'm not sure that I've got this straight, but it appears that Mr Clarke self-published Lord Vishnu's Love Handles: A Spy Novel (Sort Of) and The Worthy: A Ghost's Story "and waited for Paramount, Simon & Schuster and Columbia Pictures to find him." Sure enough, there's an IMDb listing for The Worthy. These novels, in short, have been out for a bit; now that they're "officially" published, the Book Review can take notice. Ms Schillinger is enthusiastic about both books, although she devotes only two paragraphs to The Worthy, for the most part gamely summarizing the bizarre plots. I'd have liked a bit more in the writing-sample department, because I can tell from the review's report of Mr Clarke's material that whether I'd find his fiction delightful or insufferable would depend entirely on the music of his prose.

There are two books about ethnic teens in European capitals. The first is Londonstani, by Gautam Malkani. Sophie Harrison's largely favorable review focuses on the language of this fictional report on the lives of affluent desis (South Asian young men) living in Hounslow. She notes the book's predictable flaws - "It's shallow about girls" - but suggests that they are not fatal. Lucinda Rosenfeld is similarly sympathetic to Faîza Guène's Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (translated by Sarah Adams). Here the "sourpuss narrator" is a fifteen year-old girl of Moroccan background living in the banlieues of Paris. Both reviewers left me with the impression that these books are interesting (or interesting to middle-aged readers, anyway) primarily because they open windows on the exotic.

Sharing a page are Chelsea Cain's review of Mark Childress's One Mississippi and Daniel Asa Rose's review of Killer Instinct, by Joseph Finder. Ms Cain chastises Mr Childress for shifting from coming-of-age mode into something decidedly more surreal too "far into the game." Mr Rose describes reading Killer Instinct as a guilty pleasure, noting the book's "breathtaking predictability" and its "cookie-cutter characters."

But did he have to include a perfectly gratuitous dig at a couple of fine literary journals, by making the book's most boorish character start out as "a poor starving writer" who published stories "in magazines with names like TriQuarterly and Ploughshares"? Did it never occur to him that these writers he's taking a swipe at, by any measure, are his literary betters?

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Old Filth, by Jane Gardam, and almost bought it. Paul Gray's review made me with that I had. Mr Gray writes,

Yet the miracle of Old Filth is that its hero eludes sociological or psychological pigeonholing. If he is a characteristic Raj orphan, he is also triumphantly his own man, with a life full of unexpected turns and events of high comedy to offset and compensate for his unpromising beginnings.

Mr Gray notes that this author of twelve novels may finally attain an American audience, on the strength not only of its contents but of its soft binding.


The cover story this week bears some nasty photographs, accompanying David Margolick's review of Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. An Essay in Historical Interpretation, by Jan T Gross. Mr Margolick spends most of his time retailing horror stories that fill one with a dull ache of déja vu. Only near the end does he engage Professor Gross's theory, which is that Polish anti-Semitism was caused simply by guilt: "so implicated were they in the Jewish tragedy, aiding and abetting and expropriating, that the mere sight of those wraiths returning from the camps or exile or hiding, people who knew the Poles' dirty secrets and held title to their property, was too much to bear." Mr Margolick will have none of this. Referring to Yitzhak Shamir's comment that Poles sucked in anti-Semitism with their mother's milk, he writes,

A more likely, if less politically palatable explanation, is that through their own state-of-the-art anti-Semitism, the Germans emboldened many Poles to act upon what they had always felt. The comment from Shamir, a Polish Jew himself, may strike us as deeply offensive, simplistic, racist. But whatever ross may believe, he buttresses Shamir more than he discredits him.

Fear may be a shocking book, but if any of this week's books is going to cause an uproar, it's sure to be $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, by William C Rhoden. According to Warren Goldstein's review, Mr Rhoden assesses the very negative impact that the desegregation of American sports had on almost all blacks connected with the games - coaches, doctors, accountants - except for the players, who in turn suffer a familiar, dehumanizing fate.

To Rhoden, this tale bursts with significance, illustrating, in turn: white people's denial of black business ability while they continue to profit from black athletic skill; black athletes' training in high school, college and the pros (what he calls the "Conveyor Belt") to think only about individual success, never about a system that distributes power unequally; and how even today, professional basketball - controlled by whites, dependent on blacks (for the present) - resembles a plantation, albeit one on which the "slaves" earn millions, as long as they don't notice who's running the show.

Very strong stuff!

Read this book, and the next time you hear Barry Bonds booed or think about Commissioner Bud Selig's steroids "investigation" or talk about the NBA's "image problem," you may squirm more than a little. Good.

Good, indeed!

Pankaj Mishra, an Indian man of letters - one must dust off the old title for a young man so fluent in fiction and in sociopolitical analysis as well - paints an impassioned portrait of today's India, a country more than ever feeling tensions between old and new ways, and for the first time abiding a middle class hundreds of millions large. In Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond, Mr Mishra combines every sort of nonfiction writing, as Donald MacIntyre reports.

Certainly his book offers none of the prescriptions and bromides of a "how to" manual. Part autobiography, part travelogue, it is written not from a political or polemical position but from that of a small-town, upper-caste, lower-middle-class Indian with a taste for Western literature.

Mr MacIntyre seems to change his mind later in the review, when he points out that Mr Mishra's book has outraged many of his countrymen, precisely for being critical. Indeed, reading between the lines, I gathered that we might find in these pages a pulsing portrait of what the Western bourgeoisie might have looked like two centuries ago, when it was brash and bloating, and before it had learned polite manners. I should think that a perfectly neutral reader would find Mr MacIntyre's review to be sympathetic to the author and helpful to himself; I myself have already signed on as an admirer of Mr Mishra.

On facing pages, we have three books about Topic A, which used to be sex but is now "What's wrong with this country?" Meaning the United States. Bryan Burrough is not terribly impressed by Ron Susskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies since 9/11, but he allows, at the end, that it's "an easy and worthwhile summer read." His principal complaint is that Mr Susskind's primary source, George Tenet, is never identified as such. I'm not sure what the point of such books is supposed to be, since it's pretty clear that not much of importance is taking place in the form of White House briefings. That's a shadow game; the real work of today's federal government is to sign contracts with big manufacturers of dangerous stuff. The One Percent Solution suggests that noncommercial policy inspires the Men at the Top. How they must be chuckling! Mr Burrough, who compares Mr Susskind as "flank steak to [Bob] Woodward's sirloin," seems to be equally taken in.

Tobin Harshaw reviews two books stuffed with recommendations for those who would replace the dank view of things shared by those currently in power with something more progressive. As usual - Stanley Fish did the same thing last week - the review finds the proffered solutions disappointing. The books are Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government - and How We Take It Back, by David Sirota, and Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea, by George Lakoff, and Mr Harshaw shows what he thinks of both in a neat dismissal:

While Sirota apparently never met an editor, Lakoff seems never to have met an actual conservative.

This, written by an editor with the Times's Op-Ed page, is very distressing; surely someone else ought to have reviewed these not-insignificant books. Mr Harshaw reveals a bit of professional deformation: "Perhaps it's unavoidable when a blogger tries to write at length, but the verbal mannerisms that may seem like an invigorating shot of espresso on a brief daily basis become a bathtub of stale Nescafé when stretched out to more than 300 pages."

Keith Gessen's review of Dorothy Gallagher's Strangers in the House: Life Stories completely baffles me, because, although it appears to be favorable, it never provides a good reason for reading the book. On the contrary, it makes Ms Gallagher out to be an unpleasant, self-absorbed whiner. Is this supposed to be appealing? I was vaguely impatient with the Review's editors for wasting space, not only on Strangers in the House but on Mr Gessen as well. What is one to make of this wobbly observation:

What memoirs can do, at their best, is inhabit effortlessly (because real people actually do) the most intense contradictions of a historical moment.

Bruce Handy's inflated review of Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, by Peter Ames Carlin, makes more sense than the preceding, but it fails to do the one thing that it ought to do, which is to compare Mr Carlin's book with existing titles on the subject. Instead of which, Mr Handy burps up a lot of gas about the myths of rock 'n' roll. Do I have to be Hilton Kramer to ask what a book about the Beach Boys is doing in the Book Review?

Henry Alford's Essay, "Chamber Plots," is about the taxonomy of bathroom libraries, and it's very funny. Here's how it ends:

The bathroom of two publishing insiders who wish to remain anonymous could be called "Shrine It Up," since all 46 of its books were written by people the couple know, including Tom Wolfe. "It's adoration. It's full worship," the wife told me. The husband clarified: "It's their out-to-pasture place. Their spines won't be cracked open again. At this, I smiled bleakly. It seemed that one of my own books was in the collection.


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Regarding "Strangers in the House" by D. Gallagher and K Gessen's review of it, you wrote,

"Keith Gessen's review of Dorothy Gallagher's Strangers in the House: Life Stories completely baffles me, because, although it appears to be favorable, it never provides a good reason for reading the book"

I noted myself that he didn't have much good to say about it but the review still got me interested enough to order it. It was fascinating reading to see an author write one story after another about the subject of how jealous she is of people or how she consciously plots to use them for social climbing.

A couple of them were not only about how inferior others are to her, they were about very sad things--her husband's disability, how hard it is for her to take care of him (and she's not seeking pity, but is just describing a tragedy she deals with daily, and does so graciously) and her distant cousin's tragic life in Russia. That was my favorite story. I'm not sure whether the book is a memoir or a fictionalized memoir, and Gallagher doesn't make that clear, but that story worked for me either way.

The main point of most of the personal stories is to get even with people she resents the success or popularity of (I hope the successful lying ex lover has passed to a better world so doesn't have to read her description of him), or in the case of a younger woman who stole from her husband, is both jealous of (the woman is younger and Gallagher's husband has a thing for her) and wants revenge on. I enjoyed this story, but would have liked to know what happened to the thief after the crime was discovered.

There are two stories I had to skim (one about a communist, one about a jury trial) and that seemed to have found their way into this book by mistake.

As for the reviewer, I disagree with you about him. I think the sentence you described as "wobbly" was instead "subtle."

Here is my theory of why Gessen never evaluated the book, while seeming to treat it seriously. It was obvious he didn't think the book was very good. This woman, Gallagher, has a hard life, and has sacrificed herself for her disabled husband, whom she is in love with. This makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of a certain coldness in her personality and the combinations of envy/resentment she feels toward her roommate, her friends, that assistant, and toward the success of the dreadful-seeming man she used so coolly to get ahead.

It isn't the reviewer's job to give you reasons to read a book he clearly believes isn't worth his recommendation (in passing, though, he gave a rave to Vivian Gornick's memoir) and I think he handled the book very well, and gave it it's due in a professional manner, and avoided hurting a woman whom life has hurt enough. The review intrigued me enough so that I bought the book and enjoyed it, and recommend it. With the two exceptions I mentioned, the stories are definitely not boring.

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